SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 2 – The struggle with EDUCATIONAL PURPOSE


In this series of posts I’m aiming to paint an overview of the issues surrounding the drive to make educational practice as open to scientific insight as possible. In the first two posts I’m looking at problems with the current state of ‘education’ as a philosophical entity, and how this might impact on our ability to usefully apply scientific methods to it. In the first post, I focused on the difficulties we have with clearly defining many of the key concepts which seem to be at the centre of educational debate. Unless we can clearly ‘operationalise’ a concept, we can’t unambiguously set about systematically investigating it.

In this second post, I’m returning to the perennial migrane of much educational debate, the lack of agreement around the purpose of education.


It goes without saying that there must be some purpose to education, otherwise – what on earth would be the point of doing it?

Furthermore, if science is to be of any use to the enterprise of education, then it is important that there is a clear direction of travel which it can demonstrably help us to journey towards.

However, there appear to be 5 key problems with us being able to provide this visible end point:

  1. We seem fixated by the idea that there should be one ultimate purpose
  2. Even if we identify more than one purpose, it might be that methods of best achieving one could conflict with achieving another
  3. To be of any real use in guiding action, the end goals should be recognisable when they are reached – or in other words – measurable
  4. The complete project of ‘education’ might not necessarily be the responsibility of schooling?
  5. We don’t seem to have any real way for agreeing on the purpose(s) anyway


Problem 1: One Single Purpose?

Perhaps it’s an evolved psychological thing, but it seems that we wish there to be a single, overarching, preferably pithy and punchy, headline purpose to education…

“To enable people to fulfill their potential!”

“To prepare people for life!”

“To make people cleverer!”

Probably the single biggest problem with this approach is that any one goal seems to miss something else out which feels important to many other people. Consider as an alternative the situation of the prison system. Whilst (like any field) there are disagreements about the significance of different elements, it is generally accepted that the prison system has as its remit a combination of the following 4 purposes:

  • Retribution (making criminals feel bad for what they’ve done, and victims feel somehow better)
  • Prevention (physically restricting criminals from continuing offending)
  • Deterrence (putting people off the idea of committing crimes in the first place)
  • Rehabilitation (ensuring that, if they are to be released at some point, criminals are prepared for going ‘straight’)

Despite the debates within the Justice System, I don’t believe that there is anybody who states “No, no, no… the purpose of prisons is simply_______!

So, in the same way, why can’t there be more than one clearly agreed-upon purpose for the education system?

Problem 2: How compatible might multiple purposes be?

Perhaps then – as with the prison example – we could define several distinct purposes to education, which together satisfy the different key things we reflectively want from it as a society.

A problem which could then arise is that the pursuit of one purpose might mitigate against our pursuit of another. In the prison example above, some attempts at rehabilitating prisoners can put them in a situation where prevention from continued re-offending could be weakened, or indeed, if the opportunities opened-up by correction are too good, they could reduce the deterrence effect of incarceration for would-be offenders whose lives seem to be spiraling downwards on the outside.

A similar problem arises with the tripartite ideals of the French Revolution (still entrenched in the  French constitution) – “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. Over time the French have wrestled with how to make these compatible bedfellows. Liberty doesn’t sit well with either equality or fraternity, most obviously if it is equality of outcomes that you’re after. If you want ‘equality under the law’ things just about work, but if you wanted, say, equality of opportunity – where children of all backgrounds get an equally good education, then you have to place limits on the liberty that people have to spend their money as they want. You certainly can’t have them spending money on enhancing their own children’s education, whether in the form of extra tutoring or private schooling, or trips to stimulating places etc.

In education itself, does the aim to create community-minded citizens necessarily fit snugly with developing liberated individuals? At the very least – if there is no philosophical conflict between different purposes – focus spent on one of them will likely take time away from another (the oft used ‘opportunity cost‘ objection), but then you can say that about the teaching of different subjects anyway. Time spent teaching Maths is time lost for the teaching of English.

So it could well be that the acknowledgement of multiple purposes to education will introduce new complications into discussions of the ‘best’ methods – but those are the complications which already seem to plague debate at every level anyway due to the underlying disagreement over the ‘one true purpose’ – particularly in internet discussions where it is clear that participants are simply ‘talking past each other’.

Problem 3: Clearly measurable outcomes?

It is a fundamental truth (I believe) that not everything of value to humans can be measured – at least not in a transparently unambiguous and objective sense (more in my next post). However, if we are discussing the application of science to the act of educating, then measurements of some kind are clearly going to be needed at certain points.

The problem with a purpose such as “For every child to fulfill their potential”, is that – as it stands – it is only meaningful at an intuitive or personally defined level.

  • For every child to fulfill their potential in what exactly…? In ‘life’? What – all of it? Love, career, happiness…? If just in their career, is this to be measured by money, status, job satisfaction…?
  • Or should we be asking: For children to fulfill their potential as what…? As everything that they want to be? As just the key things that they want to be? As everything which they could be? As the thing for which they have the potential for being the most successful at, irrespective of whether it’s what they want…?
  • And even if we manage to isolate which of the above we’re aiming for, who is to decide what that means for the individual child? Their parents? Their teachers? They themselves…?
  • And when should this outcome be judged? School leaving age? When they’ve finished making a family? When they’ve got as far up any career ladder as they are going to get? When they reach the point of retirement? On their death bed…?

Given all of this, how on earth should schools decide on the correct methods to help bring about such a purpose, and how would they measure their progress towards it? How would they ever know if they are taking the right approach?

It is no wonder that the Neo-Traditionalist movement is on the front foot at the moment with its simple purpose of “To make people cleverer” (see here and here). Not only is it relatively focused on one thing, compared to the many competing suggestions from more progressive educators at present, it seems relatively easy to specify, measure, and create methods for.

Problem 4: What aspects of ‘Education’ should actually be the responsibility of ‘Schooling’?

Another perspective which helps strengthen the arm of the Traditionalists is the stance that there should be a distinction made between the grand project of ‘education’, and the specific instance of ‘schooling’, as being a particular, institutionalised form of formal education.

For sure, most parents would be appalled at the idea that their children have learned nothing from the long years of family nurture and care, or indeed that schools might propose completely shaping children in the image that they or the state considered best. Furthermore, surely nobody would assert that the everyday messages and role-models which children meet throughout society – the media, the high streets, any groups that they are part of outside of school – have no formative ‘educating’ effect – for good or for ill.

Consequently, some educators suggest that the existence of schooling – following-on from its original reason for coming into being in its classical and medieval forms – is not to train or shape the character of people (that is the role of other aspects of society), it is to carry out the far more specialised function of developing the intellect and transmitting to the next generation the best that has been produced by human culture.

Again, there is a certain elegant purity to this position, and it certainly fits well with a more ‘libertarian’ as opposed to ‘paternalistic’ form of political outlook, where you’re trying to open up the opportunity for children to become whatever kind of person they might want to become, and make the choices they want to make, rather than forming them in a particular moral image chosen from above.

From what I’m saying here, it might seem that I am quite predisposed to this purpose (I do think that it is perhaps the defining cornerstone of a professional teacher’s job), but I still see it’s ‘single prong approach’ as a limitation (written about here) and anyhow, for now, it is lost in the 5th problem…

Problem 5) We just can’t find consensus on the purpose of education

As I have written previously, the purpose of education belongs to the society in which the education system is established and supported. It simply ISN’T a ‘given’ from some Platonic realm of Forms, to be hotly declared by me or any individual reader out there. If you are the head of an independent school, you certainly have some power to declare what your school is going to treat as its purpose, but a society-wide system of compulsory, tax-payer funded schooling needs something bigger.

Short of having a system made-up entirely of ‘free’ schools, from which parents can choose the one with the purposes they most approve of (logistically unworkable), or on having a public referendum on such a thing, the most democratic way of making sure that we have clear purposes representing our society will be through the consultations and deliberations of the elected government – informed by as wide a range of interested parties as possible.

Consequently, it was encouraging in the November of 2015 when the UK House of Commons Education Select Committee convened an inquiry into “The Purpose and Quality of Education in England”.

At the outset they stated… “As a Committee, we want over this Parliament to explore the fundamentals of education in England. Approaching this basic question of the purpose of education will pave the way for the Committee to examine whether our curriculum, qualifications, assessment and accountability systems really are fit for purpose.” They accepted written and oral evidence from a variety of sources, before concluding this process with a conference in September 2016, following which they stated …“The Committee plans to reflect on the conference before deciding its next steps.

At the present time of writing this blog post, the inquiry is categorized as ‘Concluded’ and of course there has been a change of parliamentary session, but as yet no ‘next steps’ or decisions ever seem to have been made public, 11 months on…

It could well be that they realized the problem of pinning down the ‘Purpose of Education’ was nigh on impossible. Here were some of the varying suggestions that they received from organisations submitting written evidence:

  • The City of London Corporation: “To educate and inspire children and young people to achieve their full potential
  • I CAN: “…we feel that education should prepare children and young people for life, learning and work, to be active and successful members of society.”
  • Teachers are Gold:The intended purpose of education for children of all ages is to prepare them as completely as is possible for life.”

(A broader selection of contributed purposes were reflected on by the University of Hull here)

Perhaps the most insightful contribution to the inquiry was the keynote speech during the conference of Professor Mary Beard (also quoted from at the beginning of the previous post) which seemed to acknowledge many of the issues I have pointed to here, and (just perhaps) might have resulted in the dead-end which the inquiry seems to have reached:

“If I was forced to say what I thought education is for. I guess I might say that it is “the process by which screaming babies are turned into the kind of human beings we would like them to be, both individually and en masse”. It’s not usually put that way but it’s broadly true, uncontroversial and doesn’t tell us very much. It only gets interesting and controversial when we try to pin down what kind of human beings, or human society, we want, and which of the many desiderata we should prioritize…. More practically it gets controversial when we try to narrow down those desirable aims into something that the formal education system can or should deliver and how we judge whether it has done a good job. Schools aren’t the only places involved in turning babies into people and what particular contribution we can expect of them is always going to be a matter of debate.”

Despite the insightful nature of Professor Beard’s summary though, perhaps the most telling contribution came from the oral evidence of Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools and head of OFSTED at the time (a role he’d held for several years – so he should have been clear what he was talking about). The significance of his contribution came from the apparent fact that he couldn’t actually seem to conceive of educational purposes beyond getting good exam results and thereby a good job (which could make people ‘happy’. See the transcript here – perhaps he felt it was beyond the technical remit of his professional role to state anything more).

The reason for me seeing significance in this statement is that, despite all our rosy, heart-felt, idealistic ruminations about what the real purpose of education should be, we are all already united by a universally established pithy single purpose, (however much we rail against it) which is easy to measure, and which is very much firmly in the remit of ‘schools’ as opposed to ‘society as a whole’; namely… to get children the best exam results we can.

It seems to me that pretty much the only useful debate which is ever had about methods etc. comes from the presence of this always flawed, never popular, public exam system.

If we took this system away, and then started to have a discussion about how best we could use the scientific approach to help with education, where exactly would we be? One way or another, we have to have some way in which we can justify the value of education to the society which pays for it. However flawed the current assessment system is, there does HAVE to be some kind of assessment system, and the best one will result in a currency that has broad recognition and utility past the point of exit – society will not stand for anything else for very long. Consequently, any replacement headline purpose for education, which isn’t just the nice additional ‘value added’ window dressing, which so many worthy additional aims are on the billboards of schools, must start by establishing EXACTLY how it will be quantified and be of use as a genuinely versatile ‘paper currency’ for young people once they pass the departure gate. However many employers might say that they’re going to start ignoring paper qualifications and administer their own aptitude tests for job applicants, I don’t believe that this will never become a wide-spread or efficient system for HR and employers.

So, to summarise then: As it stands, the ground in education is poorly prepared for scientific research and insights to make much impact beyond seeking ways to increase the grades achieved using traditional assessment structures. If we wish for wider applications of the scientific method, we need to identify and clarify ways of operationalizing other goals such that progress towards them can be in some way meaningfully measured – both as an end point, and as a path of progression towards them.

In part 3 of this series of blog posts, I will turn my focus onto the enterprise of science as a means for informing and developing the enterprise of schooling.

3 thoughts on “SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 2 – The struggle with EDUCATIONAL PURPOSE

  1. Pingback: SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 1 – The fuzziness of EDUCATIONAL DEFINITIONS | Stepping Back a Little

  2. “Despite the debates within the Justice System, I don’t believe that there is anybody who states “No, no, no… the purpose of prisons is simply_______!””

    3 of your purposes come down to stopping crime. So that and justice gives you two purposes. And they do conflict and the conflict is acknowledged, and there is debate. Contrast this with education where there are claimed to be dozens of purposes and people try to claim there is no debate or conflict between them.


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